Eagles Wake-Up Call: Where the Weight Lies
Today’s question comes from reader Jeff:
Are the Birds as bad as everyone thinks? Or was Chip putting guys in bad positions that are not part of their skill set?
Seems like a good one to tackle as the Eagles open training camp today.
The Chip Kelly effect on the 2015 team has been underplayed a bit when discussing this year’s outlook. You can argue the three main reasons for Kelly’s downfall in his final season were 1) a vanilla offense that lacked answers once the league caught up to it; 2) a tempo-at-all-costs approach that routinely stressed his own defense and 3) an inability to adjust his leadership style to meet the needs of the pro athlete.
All three issues are expected to disappear under Doug Pederson. He’s implementing a West Coast-based offense that is time-tested and somewhat complex. The quarterback will be empowered once again with ability to change the play pre-snap. There will be audibles and there will be varied snap/hard counts and all of it should help this offense become less predictable.
There will also be huddling and maybe even a little ball control. Chances are, the Eagles’ defense will no longer lead the league in snaps faced or opponent time of possession. That doesn’t guarantee that they’ll turn into a dominant unit, but for the first time in three-plus years, they’ll actually have a chance to be one. Jim Schwartz appears to be an upgrade over Billy Davis, and his 4-3 looks to be a better fit for guys like Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham, among others.
And Pederson is sure to do better in matters of #emotionalintelligence. Reviews have been positive so far regarding his approach to the players. There won’t be any walls and, considering Pederson has played in the league and studied under Andy Reid, there will be an understanding of how pro players should be handled.
When focusing on these factors alone, you can make a case that the Eagles have a real chance to improve on their 7-9 record. But those aren’t the only factors involved.
Pederson hasn’t been in the coaching game long (his first pro job was in 2009). There are questions as to whether he’s ready and able to man the head position effectively. He’ll be bringing in a more pro-style offense, yes, but there’s always a learning curve when transitioning to a new system. Sam Bradford will have to rewire his brain (again); the offensive line must adapt to the modified style; the skill position players have to absorb all the verbiage and nuance; etc. Similarly, there will likely be an adjustment period on defense (though the bet here is it will be a smoother process). Then there’s the turnover to consider: the Eagles could be looking at as many as six new starters on defense by our count and upwards of four or five on offense. Significant turnover + system change does not always equal great things.
So that’s where the doubt comes from I think, Jeff. The confidence in Pederson and Bradford is not overwhelming, and there’s enough weight on the side of What Could Go Wrong to balance out Why Things Will Be Better Off Without Kelly.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m intrigued by this training camp and this season: to see if the first-year head coach and the players that Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman have assembled can shed some of that weight and earn the trust and attention of a skeptical fan base. Act I, Scene 1 is upon us.
WHAT YOU MISSED
In addition to signing linebacker Don Cherry and safety Nick Perry, the Eagles also signed quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson to bring the roster to the maximum of 90 players.
“Perhaps that is the key to an improved Redskins run game: less emphasis.” NFC East Roundup.
“When you have a little bit of success, it’s not a time to go out there and change the process. It’s a time to stick to what works, and really try to improve on it.” Weekend Reading.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Les Bowen of the Daily News lists things the Eagles have to accomplish if they want to reach the playoffs.
3. Running back Wendell Smallwood becomes a rookie sensation.
I was going to go with “if Ryan Mathews stays healthy,” but how many of those “health” ifs in a row are you allowed? And Mathews never stays healthy, so let’s talk about Smallwood, the fifth-round rookie from Wilmington, Del., via West Virginia.
He looked smooth and strong in the spring, with no pads on. The Eagles might need him to be at least what seventh-rounder Bryce Brown was in 2012 (564 yards on 115 carries), with that contribution spread out more than Brown’s, which came in just a few memorable games.
West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider told me Smallwood was “the best back in this draft at catching the ball,” which ought to help get him on the field in a West Coast scheme. Carpe Diem, Wendell. You could not have been drafted into a situation offering more opportunity.
4. If a Pro Bowl receiver emerges from somewhere.
Jordan Matthews? Nobody works harder. Darren Sproles from the slot? He’s probably the team’s most feared weapon, even at 33. Zach Ertz, as has been predicted before? Ertz needs to work with the same quarterback for an entire season, which means both he and the QB would have to be healthy. If that ever happens, Ertz has the size and ability to be a go-to tight end.
5. If Isaac Seumalo can make up for lost time and become a strong rookie starter at left guard.
Seumalo, a third-round pick, missed most of the spring work because Oregon State is on the quarter system. The first guy the Eagles drafted after Carson Wentz will begin camp behind returning starter Allen Barbre.
I have heard the justifications for Barbre, that he was unfairly maligned last season, that he graded out pretty well in film review, and I just don’t buy it. If he starts dominating people in a new blocking scheme, I’ll apologize. Until then, let’s see Seumalo. Of course, left guard, where he’ll be working, is the only spot on the o-line where he never started a college game, in 37 outings.
Jeff McLane on the doubt surrounding Pederson, which stems in part from concerns regarding time management.
“You’re only allowed two channels on your headset, so if you’re a head coach and you have offense, defense, quarterback, you have one that’s got to go,” Pederson said. “So you can’t go directly to the quarterback if you have offense, defense. You have to go through someone to get it, or you just turn it over to your coordinator and let him call it.”
But two former NFL coaches, who requested anonymity, said that head coaches can have all three channels, and in fact, most do. Pederson is simply following the template set by Reid, which he, in turn, took from Mike Holmgren.
There could be a number of variables for why Reid’s career has been plagued by game management problems, but the unnecessary go-between in play-calling could be the chief explanation. Pederson was asked to alleviate concerns that he will have the same problems.
Training camp opens. Practice for rookies and select vets starts at 8:30. We’ll talk to Pederson and the quarterbacks afterwards.
Chris Jastrzembski contributed to this post.